By just about any measure, Head for the Hills (H4TH) has had a pretty solid 2011. The Fort Collins-founded newgrass quartet unleashed a solid and surprising long-player last year, winning their second consecutive “Best Bluegrass Band” award from Westword copping some head-turning critical attention at Austin’s South By Southwest industry schmoozefest in March, and riding a busy festival season into a handful of smaller-deal local gigs, including a Mishawaka date a couple of weeks ago, an upcoming Fox Theatre show and a two-night, twin-bill stand with Leftover Salmon at the Ogden Theatre around Thanksgiving.
Our first inclination was to dust off the “conquering hero” moniker for the band, but bassist Matt Loewen squirmed away from that.
“I dunno if we really feel like ‘conquering heroes,’” Loewen laughs. “Even if we appreciate the sentiment.
“It was a good season. … We got to do a number of festivals we hadn’t done before, like High Sierra in northern California. … It’s different. It’s kind of a whole other world. … It’s in a really nice, wide-open location, and it’s just got its own vibe. Like, Telluride Bluegrass Festival has obviously cultivated a world unto itself. I think High Sierra is kind of similar in that way.”
Festivals, of course, are just about any new acoustic band’s bread and butter these days (who makes money selling CDs anymore?), so we wondered how H4TH has adjusted to the whole festival thing. Like anyone else, the band had to claw its way into getting festival invites by surviving trial by shoe leather — opening gigs and Tuesday nights and touring clubs — but getting on those huge outdoor stages doesn’t mean the hard stuff is done. You have to learn how to actually play them.
“That’s an interesting question,” Loewen says. “For one thing, you have an audience that’s — maybe not a ‘captive’ audience — but particularly at a festival like High Sierra that has such a reputation for bringing newer, high-quality acts that you haven’t heard before, people are really ready to hear something new.
“In terms of ‘does it make you a better band,’ I think in some ways it’s easier, and in some ways it is challenging. It’s something that helps you grow. In one sense, you’re crafting a smaller amount of time that you’re trying to sell. A band like us, we’re trying to get new fans, so we’re going to craft it so that we’ll put in the best 40 minutes that we have, where maybe it can be a little harder to do two-and-a-half hours trying to keep that same level of engagement.”
H4TH shouldn’t be mistaken for a traditional bluegrass band. This is a disclaimer with plenty of fingerprints on it, though. It may well be that today’s bluegrass has moved so far from its roots that we don’t need to clarify that H4TH isn’t trying to channel Ralph Stanley or Bill Monroe — they wear their “bluegrass band” crit-tag with patient understanding that their instrumentation (acoustic guitar, standup bass, fiddle and mando) doesn’t put a lot of daylight between them and old school. Loewen admits that they don’t have to deal too often with cranky traditionalists throwing shoes at them.
Maybe the guardians of the old school don’t bother with the big festivals, or don’t worry about it too much anymore, or maybe just can’t throw that far.
“When you’re out there, you gotta have a label of some sort, even if it’s something put on you by someone outside the organization,” Loewen says.
“But you do want to be careful not to give people the wrong impression. But I do think we have the freedom to pursue [what we do] without the fear of the shoe being thrown.
“Guys like Sam Bush and Mike Marshall and Darol Anger were already throwing a wrench in things almost 40 years ago. The stuff they were doing really laid the foundation, and the stuff we do is just built on that foundation.”
We couldn’t let Loewen go without maybe throwing a little of that out there — amidst the old-timey hootenannies and the Bela-esque filigrees gracing the CD, we couldn’t help but wonder as we tried to keep up with the dizzying “Chupchik” … who let the klezmer in?
Our first suspect was Loewen himself, who hails from the typically uncountry environs of Chicago, but he deferred credit on that one.
“I think the main melodic thrust of that song came from Adam [Kinghorn, guitar], who was thinking in a particular mode — mode, like Dorian, Mixolydian — and we just kind of fleshed it out from there. And we just decided to go all klezmer on it.”
On the Bill
Head For The Hills plays the Fox Theatre on Friday, Oct. 7. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Pert’ Near Sandstone and The Shwilbillies open. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 day of show, with a $2 fee for those under 21. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.